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The 5% Rule, or Why Mies was Right

“God is in the details.”

-Mies van der Rohe

You’ve probably heard of the 80% rule, which says that 80% of effects are produced by 20% of causes. One corollary is that you can get 80% of the results from the first 20% of work, and then spend the next 80% of your time chasing that last little bit. A further corollary is that this is often not worth the aggravation, so just settle for 80% and use the rest of your time more wisely.

I will freely admit to relying on this principle when it comes to things like raking leaves or washing the dishes. But I won’t let it anywhere near my photography. That last 20% - even that last 5% - has a real effect, and it’s often what separates an adequate photograph from a great one.

Here’s why: People who study these things tell us that a viewer can be influenced by image characteristics of which he or she is never aware. It’s a subliminal effect, caused either by things we can’t consciously see, or by things that we could consciously see but overlook. (I will again reference Richard Zakia’s Perception and Imaging for further reading.)

Leaving aside content, let’s say that the first 80 or 90% of image quality comes from things that most people could notice, such as composition, depth of field, and the broad treatment of tone, contrast and color. If these things are in order, and appropriate to the subject, then the viewer will rightly feel that this is a decent photograph. At the very least, there will probably be nothing that noticeably interferes with the viewing experience.

In that last 5%, though, we have the opportunity to go from “okay” or “good” to “Wow!” There is a sense of rightness that comes from viewing a really great photograph, whether or not the viewer is conscious of it. Some of it comes from the absence of distractions, and the eye’s ability to go straight to what matters. Some of it comes from the beauty of controlled tones, clean edges, artful transitions from light to shadow, and a host of other small details that accumulate to make an impression on the viewer.

I’ve often observed that even people with little technical knowledge of photography react better to a 100% image than to an 80 or 85 or 90% one. Importantly, their good feelings toward the photograph can also give them good feelings toward what it portrays – in this case, a client’s building, space or design. I have no doubt that our clients have aimed for 100% in the work that we are photographing. How can the photographer deliver any less?

That’s why the best photographers look past “good enough” to that last 5%. It means getting everything right that we possibly can, both during the shoot and in processing after. It requires attention, experience, ambition, and, dare I say, a bit of talent. But as Mies so famously said, it’s in the details that we escape the mundane, or even the good, and move closer to something better. Isn’t that what design is all about?

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Architectural Photographer

Charlotte, NC


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